Or, is the protocol alive or dead?
Schrödinger created his famous cat in 1935, making it the unfortunate participant in a thought experiment. In it, he imagined a cat in a closed box with a deadly poison. The poison would be released if some radioactive atoms also present in the box decayed. This radioactive decay occurs naturally when a physically unstable form of an element(such as uranium) sheds energy and subatomic particles. The maths of quantum mechanics can calculate the odds that the material has decayed — and in this case, released the poison. But it cannot identify for certain when that will happen, because radioactive decay is random and no scientist can predict when a single atom will decay. Observing the closed box from the outside, therefore, at any given moment it might contain a dead cat or a live cat.
And even more confusingly, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat can be not either alive or dead, but simultaneously alive and dead. Scientists called this dual state a superposition. It is only when the box is opened that the paradox is resolved and the observer is able to determine whether the cat is happily purring or lying dead in the box. (Please note, no actual cats were harmed in the making of this theory.)
There is also, apocryphally and non-quantum-mechanically, a third state of being for the cat to be in, and that has nothing to do with quantum mechanics, and everything to do with cats. Given any box into which a cat can conceivably fit, it is a given that the cat will want to be in the box even if you don’t want it to be in the box. However, if you want the cat to be in the box, it will not want to be in the box at all, and will, in fact, be furious if it is put into the box. Inserting the unwilling cat into the box, and/or extracting the subsequently furious cat from it will – as anyone who has ever taken a reluctant feline to the vet knows – result in hissing, spitting, tail-lashing, swearing, swiping, biting and other such undesirable behaviours . . . not all of them the cat’s.
Today the inimitable – thankfully, because we do not need another one – Frost, our very own Schrödinger, is standing, looking at a box in which both the situation in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Protocol are simultaneously “alive” and “dead”: that is, they could be said to be in a quantum state of uncertainty.
Touted as the best thing ever –
(and only five months ago) in one universe, down the other trouser leg of time it is the worst thing ever, with Frost telling the European Security Committee on Monday that post-Brexit disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland had been greater than the government had expected:
“The new border checks probably have a bigger chilling effect than we thought on GB businesses wanting to move goods into Northern Ireland. This is one of the problems that is underlying some of the unrest and political developments we are seeing in Northern Ireland.” In other words, no-one on the British team did their homework, and no-one thought it through.
Speaking to MPs here, Frost, who recently visited Northern Ireland, said that while he did not want to put a formal deadline on the government’s talks with the EU, there was a “real life timeline” in Northern Ireland with a potentially “turbulent” summer approaching. The subtext here is “if the marching season this year- starting on July 12th, the date he mentioned – is explosive, it will be the EU’s fault. (And that’s a clear dog-whistle to Poots (who is a young earth creationist, by the way: who knew) to make sure that it is.)
“The degree of unsettledness in the province has turned out to be stronger than the government expected. My assessment of the situation is businesses and a good proportion of society in Northern Ireland feel anxious about the effect of the trade boundary between GB and Northern Ireland. They are seeing effects from it and are having to divert supplies to some extent. They are concerned about where this might take us.” (So is the UK government, but if it won’t move on SPS convergence it will be the UK government’s fault if it is.)
In other words, having attempted to create, in the Northern Ireland Protocol, a quantum-mechanical superposition where Northern Ireland was simultaneously in the EU and out of it, what Frost actually has in his Schrödinger’s set up is, rather than a cat which is simultaneously alive and dead, a cat that he forced into a box without explaining that it would have to stay in the box, which doesn’t want to be in the box, which, if it finally gets out of the box is going to implode spectacularly and messily anyway, and which if it doesn’t get out of the box, is going to explode and decorate the ceiling. (Sadly, Frost is unlikely to be in the killing blast radius; people such as he have an uncanny knack of avoiding the consequences of their ill-thought out actions. Other, and innocent people will be, however.)
The metaphor is perhaps a little strained at this point, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Meanwhile Frost has, to date
- Gone to the right wing papers to complain that it’s all the EU’s fault always, every time, in every circumstance. Newsflash: you signed up to the Protocol, Frost, IT WAS YOUR DOING. Would you expect to keep using the club’s facilities if you’re not only not paying your dues but you’ve slagged it off on Trip Advisor?
- Complained to the EU that it is being “rigid” and “purist” in its interpretation of the Protocol. (The EU is applying the letter of the law. So is the UK – when it suits it. When it doesn’t suit it, it is taking unilateral action to avoid or evade its obligations under it. Set up those TCA committees and working parties yet?)
- Moaned that blame “to some extent” lies with the EU’s controversial move in January to impose a ban on vaccine exports by suspending the Protocol, which the bloc quickly backtracked on. (Six hours. It took them six hours to realise they had made a mistake, own it and move on. It’s like a fifty year old office manager complaining that when they were in Year 1 someone stole their pencil, so now they are justified in stealing everyone else’s because shock! horror! injustice.)
- Complained that the European Commission has rejected U.K. proposals on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, a key sticking point in discussions over the future of the protocol and that in order to reduce trade friction in Northern Ireland, Brussels is arguing that Britain should commit to align with the EU on food, plant and environmental standards. Well, of course it is. You can’t have a Schrödinger’s single market: a superposition of being simultaneously in it or out of it. We wanted to be out of it because of “sovereignty.” We can’t be in it just for the bits that suits us, although Barnier’s book, La Grande Illusion (available in French on Kindle) indicates that the UK government continually attempted not just to cherry pick the legislation it wanted, but to pursue its usual Roman policy of “divide et impera” with the 27, looking for allies to split the (resolutely unsplittable, and, according to Barnier, resolved to be so from the beginning) bloc.
His most recent comments indicate that matters are likely to be at an impasse for some time:
“Obviously, from the EU’s point of view the easiest solution to any border problem is that we should operate the same rules, laws as they do and that solves the problem,” he said. “Obviously, that doesn’t work for us. That is not going to be the solution.”
So what’s his answer?
“We continue to consider all the options. I’d like to think that if we were to take measures of any kind that support the stability of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, that the EU would not make that more difficult by reacting to it.”
These are really weasel words here. He is implying quite clearly that if the UK takes any sort of unilateral action, it will be the EU that destabilises the Good Friday agreement by reacting to it. That’s blackmail: give us what we want or we’ll make sure that the world knows that you shot that agreement down in flames. And what Frost is doing is not “considering all the options.” He is saying “this is what we want; give it to us, or else, which is what he has done all along. He did it with the initial creation of the Northern Ireland Protocol: give us what we want, or else. So he got what he wanted – and hailed as a success, and now it’s a failure he wants to say that he never wanted it anyway. This is no way for a mature and reasonable state to behave.
In response to Frost’s remarks, the EU, as ever, looking like the grown-up partner in the negotiations, has moved to play down tensions, saying it was “making progress” in intensive dialogue with its UK counterparts, adding that the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, was looking for “solutions, not soundbites” and adding that talks with the UK have been constructive and progress was being made.
That’s not what it looks like from here.
This week, RTÉ reports that the UK government has suggested it could use the concept of force majeure to absolve it of its obligations to apply the Northern Ireland Protocol. Force majeure is a legal concept through which a party can demand to be relieved of its contractual obligations because of circumstances beyond its control or which were unforeseen.
Apparently the suggestion of using force majeure is made in a twenty-page letter, the UK government’s formal response to legal proceedings initiated by the Commission on 15 March, sent last Friday, which sets out a litany of factors which, the UK says, have forced it to take unilateral action on how the protocol was being implemented. The factors include the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the overall obligations of the protocol. The point is, however, that it was Frost’s job to foresee the problems inherent in the protocol. And blaming Covid for creating the difficulties is simply a fudge; the difficulties would have been the same had we not had a pandemic because of the switch in trading agreements from the single market to a third party agreement.
Meanwhile Frost is sticking to his (questionable) principles, one of which is, it appears that it is a “fundamental issue of principle” that the UK will not dynamically align with EU rules. (Dynamic alignment, otherwise known as a Swiss-style arrangement, would involve the UK following EU rules in this area indefinitely.)
Yes, that’s an impasse.
And since time will move on despite his “principles” and the province will not be patient for ever – indeed it is rapidly running out of patience – it seems as if our Schrödinger, looking for, it is clear, a dead cat, is more likely to end up with a furious cat, and, upon its eventual eruption from the box, the cat-fight to end all cat fights.
So let us end with a reflection.
“There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many.
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit
Till excepting their nails,
And the tips of their tails . . .
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”
Absit, o absit, omen. May it not happen. The peace in Ireland was hard fought for, and hard won, and it does not deserve to be ruined by the intransigence of a venomous, bombastic, arrogant and incapable man seconded by an incompetent and corrupt government, and bolstered by a bigoted and irresponsible press. But, alas, it may be.